The Purple Finch
By Al Lowe
Here is a bird which is mis-named. It is a finch all right, but it is not purple, at least, not as we know the colour nowadays. The male bird is splendid in a lot of rosy red hues. As someone said, he looks as if he had been dipped in a bath of raspberry juice. Head, breast, sides, back and rump are various shades of crimson to pinkish red. A very delightful bird to see at your feeder.
The female is marked more like a sparrow, mainly olive-brown, mainly in streaks. Breast is white with thick brown stripes.
The birds nest almost all across the country, from B.C. to Nova Scotia. In the winter, they do migrate to more southern climates, but many of them do winter in the southern parts of Canada, even in parts of northern Ontario.
Purple finches were once very common all over the eastern part of North America. In the 1870's or so, they were found on farms, in towns and cities, as well as in the wilderness. They seem to have been displaced by the very aggressive English Sparrows, and their numbers declined for many years. Also at one time, male finches were trapped in large numbers to be used as house birds (like canaries) because of their lively songs, and because they were very easily domesticated. Happily, the trade in wild birds has long since been outlawed.
They nest mainly in evergreen trees, about 15 or 20 feet up. They like to be secretive with their nests and hide them in the most dense branches.
Finches are strongly related to the sparrows, and so live to a large extent on seeds and grains. In the winter, this makes up almost their exclusive diet, which is why they are so easily attracted to bird feeders. In the summer, they eat a lot of fruit, raspberries, cherries and so on, both wild and cultivated. They also eat quite a lot of buds - oak, maple, fir, etc. At one time they got into quite a lot of trouble because they ate a lot of the buds from apple and pear trees. Farmers mistakenly thought that their orchards were being hard done by. Now we know that this type of natural 'pruning' is quite beneficial to the trees, and helps to improve the yield.
If you are looking for these birds in the summertime, look around the edges of open coniferous woods, or around the farm where there is a good sized woodlot. They frequent orchards, and new growth from cut-over areas as well.
This is certainly one of our most colourful sparrow-like birds. The Purple Finch, Carpodacus purpureus, is a bright spot in the winter or the early spring.